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Aung San Suu Kyi: a life less ordinary

Aung San Suu Kyi: a life less ordinary

Aung San Suu Kyi (born 19 June 1945) is a Burmese opposition politician and a former General Secretary of the National League for Democracy.

In the 1990 Burmese General Election, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won 59% of the national votes and 81% (392 of 485) of the seats in Parliament. She had, however, already been placed under house arrest before the elections.

She remained under house arrest in Burma for almost 15 of the 21 years from 1990 until her release earlier this month, on 13 November 2010.

Aung San Suu Kyi was the recipient of the Rafto Prize, and the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

In 1992 she was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding by the Government of India, and the International Simón Bolívar Prize from the Government of Venezuela.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the third child and only daughter of Aung San, who is considered to be the ‘father’ of modern-day Burma (now Myanmar).

Aung San Suu Kyi derives her name from three relatives: “Aung San” from her father, “Suu” from her grandmother and “Kyi” from her mother. She is frequently called ‘Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’, however, ‘Daw’ is not part of her name, but is an honorific, similar to madame, for older, revered women, and literally means “aunt”.

She is also often referred to as Daw Suu by the Burmese, and as Dr. Suu Kyi, Ms. Suu Kyi, or Mrs. Suu Kyi by the foreign media. However, like other Burmese, she has no surname.

Aung San Suu Kyi was born in Rangoon (now named Yangon), and her father, Aung San, founded the modern Burmese army and negotiated Burma’s independence from the British Empire in 1947, only to be assassinated by his rivals later in the same year.

Aung San Suu Kyi grew up with her mother, Khin Kyi, and two brothers, Aung San Lin and Aung San Oo, in Rangoon, however her favourite brother, Aung San Lin, died at age eight after falling into an ornamental lake on the grounds of the house and drowning.

Her elder brother emigrated to San Diego, California, later becoming a United States citizen.

After Lin’s death, the family moved to a house by Inya Lake, where Suu Kyi met people of very different backgrounds, political views and religions.

She was educated in Methodist English High School (now Basic Education High School No. 1 Dagon) for much of her childhood in Burma, where she was noted as having a talent for learning languages. She is a Theravada Buddhist.

Suu Kyi’s mother, Khin Kyi, gained prominence as a political figure in the newly formed Burmese government, and was appointed Burmese ambassador to India and Nepal in 1960. Aung San Suu Kyi followed her there, graduating from Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi with a degree in politics in 1964.

Suu Kyi continued her education at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, obtaining a B.A. degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 1969. After graduating, she lived in New York City with a family friend and worked at the United Nations for three years, primarily on budget matters, writing daily to her future husband, Dr. Michael Aris.

In 1972, Aung San Suu Kyi married Aris, a scholar of Tibetan culture, living abroad in Bhutan.

The following year she gave birth to their first son, Alexander Aris, in London, and their second son, Kim, was born in 1977.

Subsequently, she earned a Ph.D. at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London in 1985, and was elected an Honorary Fellow in 1990.

For two years she was a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS) in Shimla, India, also working for the government of the Union of Burma.

In 1988 Suu Kyi returned to Burma, at first to tend for her ailing mother, but later to lead the pro-democracy movement. Aris’ visit in Christmas 1995 turned out to be the last time that he and Suu Kyi met, as Suu Kyi remained in Burma and the Burmese dictatorship denied him any further entry visas.

Aris was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, which was later found to be terminal.

Despite appeals from prominent figures and organizations – including the United States, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Pope John Paul II – the Burmese government would not grant Aris a visa, saying that they did not have the facilities to care for him, and instead urged Aung San Suu Kyi to leave the country to visit him.

She was at that time temporarily free from house arrest, but was unwilling to depart, fearing that she would be refused re-entry if she left, as she did not trust the military junta’s assurance that she could return.

Aris died on his 53rd birthday on 27 March 1999. Since 1989, when his wife was first placed under house arrest, he had seen her only five times, the last of which was for Christmas in 1995. She also remains separated from her children, who live in the United Kingdom.

On 2 May 2008, after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, Suu Kyi lost the roof of her house and lived in virtual darkness after losing electricity in her dilapidated lakeside residence. She used candles at night, as she was not provided with a generator.

Plans to renovate and repair the house were announced in August 2009.

Suu Kyi was released from house arrest on November 13, 2010.

Political beginnings

Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988 to take care of her ailing mother, and, by coincidence, in the same year, the long-time military leader of Burma and head of the ruling party, General Ne Win, stepped down.

This led to mass demonstrations for democracy on 8 August 1988 (8-8-88, a day seen as auspicious), which were violently suppressed in what came to be known as the 8888 Uprising.

On 26 August 1988, she addressed half a million people at a mass rally in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda in the capital, calling for a democratic government. However, in September a new military junta took power.

Later the same month, 24 September 1988, the National League for Democracy (NLD) was formed, with Suu Kyi as general secretary. Influenced by both Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and by (more specifically) Buddhist concepts, Aung San Suu Kyi entered politics to work for democratization, and helped to found the National League for Democracy on 24 September 1988. She was put under house arrest on 20 July 1989, but offered freedom if she left the country – but she refused.

One of her most famous speeches is the “Freedom From Fear” speech, which begins…

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

She also believes fear spurs many world leaders to lose sight of their purpose, famously stating that “Government leaders are amazing. So often it seems they are the last to know what the people want.”

Political career

In 1990, the military junta called a general election, in which the National League for Democracy (NLD) received 59% of the votes, guaranteeing NLD representation in 80% of the parliament seats.

Being the NLD’s candidate, Aung San Suu Kyi – under normal circumstances – would have assumed the office of Prime Minister, however, the results were nullified and the military refused to hand over power.

This resulted in an international outcry, and Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest at her home on University Avenue (16°49′32″N 96°9′1″E / 16.82556°N 96.15028°E / 16.82556; 96.15028) in Rangoon.

During her arrest she was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990, and the Nobel Peace Prize the year after.

Her sons, Alexander and Kim, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on her behalf.

Aung San Suu Kyi used the Nobel Peace Prize’s 1.3 million USD prize money to establish a health and education trust for the Burmese people.

On 9 November 1996, the motorcade that she was traveling in with other National League for Democracy leaders Tin Oo and U Kyi Maung, was attacked in Rangoon. About 200 men swooped on the motorcade, wielding metal chains, metal batons, stones and other weapons.

The car that Aung San Suu Kyi was in had its rear window smashed, and the car with Tin Oo and U Kyi Maung had its rear window and two backdoor windows shattered. It is believed the offenders were members of the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA) who were allegedly paid 500 kyats (USD $5) each to participate.

The NLD lodged an official complaint with the police, and according to reports, the government launched an investigation, but no action was taken.

House Arrest

Aung San Suu Kyi has been placed under house arrest on numerous occasions since she began her political career, totalling 15 of the past 21 years.

During these periods, she had been prevented from meeting her party supporters and international visitors, and lived  with her two maids, receiving visits from her doctor.

In an interview, Suu Kyi said that, while under house arrest, she spent her time reading philosophy, politics and biographies that her husband had sent her. She would also occupy her time by playing the piano, and was occasionally allowed visits from foreign diplomats as well as her personal doctor.

The media have also been prevented from visiting her, and, in 1998, journalist Maurizio Giuliano – after photographing her – was stopped by customs officials, and all his films, tapes and some of his notes were confiscated.

Suu Kyi met the leader of Burma, General Than Shwe – accompanied by General Khin Nyunt – on 20 September 1994, while under house arrest. This was the first meeting since she had been placed in detention.

When the military government released Suu Kyi from house arrest, it made it clear that, if she left the country to visit her family in the United Kingdom, she would not be allowed to return.

On several occasions during Suu Kyi’s house arrest, she has had periods of poor health, and as a result, had to be hospitalized.

Suu Kyi continued to be imprisoned under the 1975 State Protection Act (Article 10 b) – which grants the government the power to imprison persons for up to five years without a trial – and the Law to Safeguard the State Against the Dangers of Those Desiring to Cause Subversive Acts (Article 10 a), as Suu Kyi is “likely to undermine the community peace and stability” of the country.

Many nations and figures have continued to call for her release, as well as the release of 2,100 other political prisoners in the country.

On 12 November 2010, days after the junta-backed party – Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) – ‘won’ the elections – which were conducted after a gap of almost 20 years – the junta finally agreed to sign orders allowing Suu Kyi’s release.

Her house arrest term came to an end on 13 November 2010.

UN involvement

The United Nations has attempted to facilitate dialogue between the junta and Suu Kyi.

On 6 May 2002, following secret confidence-building negotiations led by the UN, the government did released her; a government spokesman said that she was free to move “because we are confident that we can trust each other”. Aung San Suu Kyi proclaimed “a new dawn for the country”.

However, on 30 May 2003, a government-sponsored mob attacked her caravan in the northern village of Depayin, murdering and wounding many of her supporters.

Aung San Suu Kyi fled the scene with the help of her driver, Ko Kyaw Soe Lin, but was arrested upon reaching Ye-U.

The government imprisoned her at Insein Prison in Rangoon, however, after she underwent a hysterectomy in September 2003, the government again placed her under house arrest in Rangoon.

The results from the UN facilitation have been mixed; Razali Ismail, UN special envoy to Burma, met with Aung San Suu Kyi. Ismail resigned from his post the following year, partly because he was denied re-entry to Burma on several occasions.

Several years later in 2006, Ibrahim Gambari, UN Undersecretary-General (USG) of Department of Political Affairs, also met with Aung San Suu Kyi, the first visit by a foreign official since 2004. He again met with Suu Kyi later the same year.

On 2 October 2007 Gambari returned to talk to her again after seeing Than Shwe and other members of the senior leadership in Naypyidaw. State television broadcast Suu Kyi with Gambari, stating that they had met twice. This was Suu Kyi’s first appearance in state media in the four years since her current detention began.

The United Nations Working Group for Arbitrary Detention rendered an Opinion (No. 9 of 2004) that her deprivation of liberty was arbitrary, as being in contravention of Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, and requested that the authorities in Burma set her free. The Burmese authorities ignored this request.

Such claims were rejected by Major-General Khin Yi, the national police chief of Burma.

On 18 January 2007, the state-run paper ‘New Light of Myanmar’ accused Suu Kyi of tax evasion for spending her Nobel Prize money outside of the country. The accusation followed the defeat of a US-sponsored United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Burma as a threat to international security; the resolution was defeated because of strong opposition from China, which has strong ties with the military junta (China later voted against the resolution, along with Russia and South Africa).

In November 2007, it was reported that Suu Kyi would meet her political allies, National League for Democracy, along with a government minister. The ruling junta made the official announcement on state TV and radio just hours after UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari ended his second visit to Burma.

The NLD confirmed that it had received the invitation to hold talks with Suu Kyi, however the process delivered few concrete results.

On 3 July 2009, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon went to Burma to pressure the junta into releasing Suu Kyi and to institute democratic reform. However, on departing from Burma, Ban Ki-moon said he was “disappointed” with the visit after junta leader Than Shwe refused permission for him to visit Suu Kyi, citing her ongoing trial.

Ban said he was “deeply disappointed that they have missed a very important opportunity.”

Periods under detention

* 20 July 1989: Placed under house arrest in Rangoon under martial law that allows for detention without charge or trial for three years.

* 10 July 1995: Released from house arrest.

* 23 September 2000: Placed under house arrest.

* 6 May 2002: Released after 19 months.

* 30 May 2003: Arrested following the Depayin massacre, she was held in secret detention for more than three months before being returned to house arrest.

* 25 May 2007: House arrest extended by one year despite a direct appeal from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to General Than Shwe.

* 24 October 2007: Reached 12 years under house arrest, solidarity protests held at 12 cities around the world.

* 27 May 2008: House arrest extended for another year, which is illegal under both international law and Burma’s own law.

* 11 August 2009: House arrest extended for 18 more months because of “violation” arising from the May 2009 trespass incident.

* 13 November 2010: Released from house arrest.

2007 anti-government protests

Protests led by Buddhist monks began on 19 August 2007 following steep fuel price increases, and continued each day, despite the threat of a crackdown by the military. On 22 September 2007, although still under house arrest, Suu Kyi made a brief public appearance at the gate of her residence in Rangoon to accept the blessings of Buddhist monks who were marching in support of human rights.

It was reported that she had been moved the following day to Insein Prison (where she had been detained in 2003), but meetings with UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari near her Rangoon home on 30 September and 2 October established that she remained under house arrest.

2009 trespass incident

On 3 May 2009, an American man, identified as John Yettaw, swam across Inya Lake to her house uninvited and was arrested when he made his return trip three days later. He had attempted to make a similar trip two years earlier, but for unknown reasons was turned away.

He later claimed at trial that he was motivated by a divine vision requiring him to notify her of an impending terrorist assassination attempt.

On 13 May, Suu Kyi was arrested for violating the terms of her house arrest because the swimmer – who pleaded exhaustion – was allowed to stay in her house for two days before he attempted the swim back.

Suu Kyi was later taken to Insein Prison, where she could have faced up to five years confinement for the intrusion.

The trial of Suu Kyi and her two maids began on 18 May, and a small number of protesters gathered outside.

Diplomats and journalists were barred from attending the trial; however, on one occasion, several diplomats from Russia, Thailand and Singapore and journalists were allowed to meet Suu Kyi.

The prosecution had originally planned to call 22 witnesses, and also accused John Yettaw of ‘embarrassing the country’.

During the ongoing defence case, Suu Kyi said she was innocent, and her defence was allowed to call only one witness (out of four), whilst the prosecution was permitted to call 14 witnesses.

The court rejected two character witnesses, NLD members Tin Oo and Win Tin, and permitted the defense to call only a legal expert.

According to one unconfirmed report, the junta was planning to – once again – place her in detention, this time in a military base outside the city.

In a separate trial, Yettaw said he swam to Suu Kyi’s house to warn her that her life was “in danger”.

The national police chief later confirmed that Yettaw was the “main culprit” in the case filed against Suu Kyi.

According to aides, Suu Kyi spent her 64th birthday in jail sharing biryani rice and chocolate cake with her guards.

Her arrest and subsequent trial received worldwide condemnation by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Security Council, Western governments, South Africa, Japan, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member.

The Burmese government strongly condemned the statement, as it created an “unsound tradition”, and criticised Thailand for meddling in its internal affairs.

The Burmese Foreign Minister, Nyan Win, was quoted in the state-run newspaper ‘New Light of Myanmar’ as saying that the incident “was trumped up to intensify international pressure on Burma by internal and external anti-government elements who do not wish to see the positive changes in those countries’ policies toward Burma”.

Ban responded to an international campaign by flying to Burma to negotiate, but Than Shwe rejected all of his requests.

On 11 August 2009 the trial concluded, and Suu Kyi was sentenced to imprisonment for three years with hard labour, however this sentence was commuted by the military rulers to further house arrest of 18 months.

On 14 August, U.S. Senator Jim Webb visited Burma, visiting with junta leader Gen. Than Shwe and later with Suu Kyi.

During the visit, Webb negotiated Yettaw’s release and deportation from Burma.

Following the verdict of the trial, lawyers of Suu Kyi said that they would appeal against the 18-month sentence.

On 18 August, United States President Barack Obama asked the country’s military leadership to set free all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi.

In her appeal, Aung San Suu Kyi had argued that the conviction was unwarranted, however, her appeal against the August sentence was rejected by a Burmese court on 2 October 2009 – although the court accepted the argument that the 1974 constitution, under which she had been charged, was null and void. However, the court went on to say that the provisions of the 1975 security law – under which she has been kept under house arrest – remained in force.

The verdict effectively meant that she will be unable to participate in the elections which were scheduled to take place in 2010 — the first in Burma in two decades.

Her lawyer stated that her legal team would pursue a new appeal within 60 days.

It was announced prior to the recent Burmese general election that Aung San Suu Kyi may be released “so she can organize her party”, however, Suu Kyi was not be allowed to run in the election itself.

On 1 October 2010 the government announced that she would be released on November 13, 2010.

It is generally accepted that Burma’s relaxing stance – such as releasing political prisoners – was influenced in the wake of successful recent diplomatic visits by the US and other Democratic governments, urging or encouraging the Burmese towards democratic reform.

U.S. President Barack Obama personally advocated for the release of all political prisoners, especially Aung San Suu Kyi, during the US-ASEAN Summit of 2009.

The Japanese Hatoyama government – which spent 2.82 Billion yen in 2008 – had promised more Japanese foreign aid in an effort to encourage Burma to release Aung San Suu Kyi in time for the elections; and to continue moving towards democracy and the rule of law.

In a personal letter to Suu Kyi, UK Prime Minster Gordon Brown cautioned the Burmese government of the potential consequences of rigging elections as “condemning Burma to more years of diplomatic isolation and economic stagnation”.

Suu Kyi was allowed, however, to meet with senior members of her NLD party – under close supervision – at the State House.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s release orders were ‘signed’ on the evening of 13 November 2010, and Aung San Suu Kyi was again released from house arrest.

This was the date her detention had been set to expire according to a court ruling in August 2009, and came six days after a widely-criticized general election.

She appeared in front of a crowd of her supporters, who rushed to her house in Rangoon when nearby barricades were removed by the security forces.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate had been detained for a total of 15 of the past 21 years.

The government newspaper ‘New Light of Myanmar’ reported the release positively, saying that she had been granted a pardon after serving her sentence “in good conduct”.

The New York Times suggested that the military government may have released Suu Kyi because it felt it was in a confident position to control her supporters after the election. (Wikipedia)

Along with millions of others around the world, we here at the Thailand Times hope that Aung San Suu Kyi’s release marks a move forward in the development of democracy in Myanmar.

Photo: welt

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